Seeing 'Double'

Paul Allen's rarefied art project breaks with traditional gallery experience.

If you know anything about Paul Allen's art collection, you know that you don't really know anything about it. The billionaire collector has been famously secretive about his purchases, though he is often named as one of the world's top 10 active art buyers. Everyone along the chain of acquisition—the auction houses, Allen's art advisers, even the people responsible for transporting and handling the works—keeps mum about how much art he's got, who created it, and where it's housed. As one local curator put it, "I've tried pumping people [for information] at various points and they've said, 'If I told you, I'd have to kill you.'"

Such secrecy breeds intense interest, of course. So when Allen's exalted curio cabinet, Experience Music Project, announced it would show some of his treasures in "DoubleTake: From Monet to Lichtenstein" this spring and summer, it braced for scrutiny. At one preview of the exhibit, an EMP employee was heard to mutter, "The media won't like it no matter what we do." And sure enough, the show, which opened Saturday, April 8, has sparked many strong opinions and some sharp exchanges in the local papers.

One rare point of agreement: The 28 works in the exhibition, authored by a range of 17th- to 20th-century masters, are top drawer. They include prime examples of the work of Edgar Degas, Paul Gauguin, Roy Lichtenstein, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Georges Seurat, Willem de Kooning, and many others—all in excellent condition. Local critics, curators, and artists interviewed for this story concurred that it's exciting to see work of this caliber in Seattle.

But the overall conceit of the show—in which paintings from different eras are paired to create unexpected juxtapositions—is not uniformly popular. Elizabeth Brown, chief curator at the Henry Art Gallery, came down on the "pro" side: "It's like an art history class. Here's a compare/contrast. What do I say about this in five minutes? It's not the way I would've done it, but . . . it's fun."

Others found the pairings too contrived or claustrophobic. Frye Art Museum Chief Curator Robin Held's overall impression of the exhibit was favorable, but, she said, "The work suffers from having been too crowded. It was difficult to appreciate the value of any individual work of art, regardless of how remarkable it was. . . . Those paintings would shine in a more orthodox viewing situation, with white walls and good lighting."

Which brings us to the walls. Some think EMP's temporary gallery—a small, asymmetrical room with beige linen walls—is lovely, intimate, and quaintly European. Others despise it. Seattle Times critic Sheila Farr described it as "an awkward gallery with no natural light, punctuated by a couple of massive metallic pillars." Farr's counterpart at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Regina Hackett, dissed the room, too, comparing it to "a giant motorhome"—but her review, published four days after Farr's, read an awful lot like a retort: "Those who think the container cancels the pleasures of the art contained need a check-up from the neck up," she wrote.

Farr was particularly disappointed with the framing of many of the pictures in the show. A number of the period frames were replaced with plain black or white boxes, so the works could be more easily compared side to side. But, Farr lamented, there's "no breathing room" between the new frames and the edges of the pictures: "It's as though they've been put into straightjackets." She called the heavy white frame around Mark Rothko's 1956 abstract Yellow Over Purple "a travesty."

But Brown excused the Rothko frame as a "travel frame," meant to protect the painting in transit and for the duration of this temporary exhibit. Certainly security concerns figured highly in the exhibit design. All the paintings appear under glass, leading to some unfortunate, distracting reflection of light.

Love it or hate it, it's fair to say that "DoubleTake" is unlike any art show Seattle has ever seen.

"Doing it at EMP is a different model, and we need more models for showing art," said Held. "It's the Bellagio [Hotel, in Las Vegas] model—not separating high art from popular culture. . . . I hope, for Paul Allen, this is a test case. . . . I hope he's very successful and it gives him the confidence to show part of his collection again."

On this, Brown agrees: "Maybe this will have reassured the collector that he can share his objects periodically."

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